Even before Lindy Chamberlain’s infamous cry of, “a dingo ate my baby,” the bush’s apex predator was a much-maligned creature. Most likely brought to Australia 5,000 years ago by Indonesian seafarers, rather than being celebrated and protected, they have been vilified and hunted as pests.
Ngarigo man and contemporary artist Peter Waples-Crowe can identify. “It’s our native dog yet it’s not considered a true native, and that could be a metaphor for the way I feel sometimes.”
His latest exhibition, Dirty Dingo, brings together a pack of brilliantly hued dingo posters burrowed beneath Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station. Taking over the Campbell Arcade’s 12 glass art display boxes - dubbed The Dirty Dozen – they are a joyful addition to Yirramboi, the city’s freshly renamed and rebooted First Nations Arts Festival. Yirramboi means ‘tomorrow’ in both the Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung languages.
Raised by non-Indigenous adoptive parents, Waples-Crowe’s lighter skin and early association with being gay meant that he sometimes felt like an outsider. Inspired by the big and bold street art of Keith Haring and by the work of Tracey Moffat and Gordon Bennet, his own multi-disciplinary art includes an element of searching for a sense of self that hasn’t always slotted into easy binaries.
A confirmed dog person with the childhood nickname ‘Wolf’, Waples-Crowe soon began using the image of the playful dingo as a recurring motif, depicting the animal on canvas in texta, in ceramic on latte mugs and in stone sculptures with gilt toes and ears. “The crow is my totem in Ngarigo culture, but the dingo feels like the totem that chose me,” he says. “I see it as a spiritual guide in my work and it’s come to represent a lot of things because of its precarious nature in Australia. It gets in the way of agricultural progress, so people hunt it down. There’s a huge dingo fence across the country to stop them coming back into the south-eastern part of the country where my original mob are from.”
In some aboriginal stories, the dingo is also depicted as a shape-shifter, and in this sense, Waples-Crowe sees it as a neat fit for non-binary identities and the queer experience. Having recently turned 50, he feels revitalised and more comfortable with the various facets of what makes him who he is.
“I’ve got rid of some of my self-doubts,” he says. “All that journey back from being in the white family to finding my aboriginal roots, meeting a Ngarigo elder like Uncle John who is the knowledge keeper. I got to hold cultural belongings like message sticks that were hundreds of years old, and that was really good for me.”
Waples-Crowe has been moved in recent years by the stories of indigenous trans communities of sistagirls and brothaboys. Troubled by the unfortunately high suicide rates amongst LGBTIQ people - already higher in Australia’s aboriginal population - Waples-Crowe increasingly feels a need to be loud with his pride.
“Me and [fellow artist] Susan Forrester often joke that we are emerging queer elders and what are we going to do about it?” he chuckles. “It’s a responsibility you think about, you know? We need more role models. There are way too many suicides and we don’t want young people feeling so isolated.”
Pointing to the attack on Safe Schools as one front, Waples-Crowe says hard-won rights are under threat. “Things can go backwards really quickly and it’s a global phenomenon. Maybe if young people see my work, they think, ‘there’s other people out there like me, here they are putting on art shows.’ They need to see you can have a full life, that it’s okay to be aboriginal and gay.”
Yirramboi creative director Jacob Boehme reckons as role models go, Waples-Crowe is excellent. “He is a very strong, confident voice and that’s what our kids need,” he says. “It’s important, not only as an aboriginal person, but as a queer person, that we have elders.”
Boehme’s excited to bring the Dirty Dingos to Melbourne’s commuters, complete with a live performance by Waples-Crowe’s band The Treaters on Yirramboi’s city-wide day of activation, Barring Yanabul. “I’m so looking forward to seeing them gathered in the one space, and then him playing with the band, that’s going to be absolutely cracked. He’s amazing, throwing off the shackles of what’s expected of us as aboriginal artists, of what we’re expected to produce, smashing through the narrative and creating new ones.”
Dirty Dingo is at the Campbell Arcade’s Dirty Dozen as part of Yirramboi from May 6-14. Catch Peter Waples-Crowe playing live with The Treaters on Saturday May 13 at 2pm and 4pm during Barring Yanabul.